It 's a few minutes after eight o clock. Peter has just slipped through the alley side door of Stephen Clifford Carroll’s condominium. Carroll had given Peter a key so he could come and go as the needs of their project required. Tonight Carroll will review Peter’s new drawings for next month’s city council presentation.
Peter has continued to work for Carroll without compensation. It had been a foolish decision. Given what he has learned during their time together, Peter is no longer in any way mesmerized by the man. If fact, Peter is pretty sure Carroll is a complete fraud. But, he has too much personal integrity to welch out on their deal at this very late date.
Peter carefully unrolls seven, 30” x 42” sheets of vellum. He lays each out on the drafting table in Carroll’s studio. He notices an inconsequential flaw, a sixteenth inch gap in an inked line of one of the drawings. He flips on the drafting lamp overhead and unscrews the cap of a #006 technical pen. With the sure-handed confidence of a journeyed draftsman, Peter flicks the stainless steel pen tip a fraction of an inch from left to right, closing the gap, rendering the nearly perfect drawing, perfect.
Apparently, Carroll will be late for their appointment. Peter sits silently and stares out the back window of the condo into an adjoining yard, onto a finely manicured garden of liriope, gardenia and dappled, black-eyed Susans.
Peter’s presentation drawings for Carroll are stark, austere and completely devoid of emotion. The edges that separate one architectural surface from another are sharply cleaved. Shadows are blackened. Illuminated surfaces are bleached white. What color exists is limited to only the primary hues of yellow, blue and red. There are no perspective sketches. There are no gaily colorful streetscape views. There are only desolate axonometric projections-disturbingly oblique abstractions that look to have been ciphered by the steely keystrokes of an adding machine.
Peter’s drawings bear this appearance not because it is his personal style, but because it suits Stephen Clifford Carroll that it all be represented exactly this way. He insists Peter’s drawings communicate his vision of the project without the slightest hint of sentiment or empathy. His vision, like the man himself, has no use for such inconveniently messy aspirations.
Were Carroll to be asked point blank why he believed any of this to be in any way appropriate for this project, he would respond with unflinching conviction. He believes architecture has for too long been trivialized by sickening pastiche and devalued by spineless hacks and neophytes who falsely claim themselves legitimate designers. He has no use for any of them. Carroll believes architecture too sacred and vital an endeavor to be sapped by emasculations of the heart. For Carroll, architecture is ever only the sublimely passionless exercise of pure intellect. It requires no further extenuating elaboration.
This idea will in fact be the central thrust of Carroll’s presentation to the city council. He will pose that there can be no other alternative but his because it alone represents the nothing less consequential than the sacred truth of the absolving purity of Architecture. Carroll is totally convinced about all of this. He doesn't possess a single shred of doubt about any of it whatsoever.
This would be because the man is completely dead inside.
At twenty past eight, Stephen Clifford Carroll strides into his Compton Point condominium. He does not apologize to Peter for his lateness. He is after all, a highly respected, fully tenured Professor of Architecture at Alabaster University. Apologies are for cleaning women and junior members of the graduate faculty.
“What have we tonight, Peter?” Carroll says in his usual smarmy drawl.
“The final drawings.” Peter replies. “I think…I believe…uh, I think they’re really close to being done.”
Carroll pulls his reading glasses from his vest pocket and slides them onto the bridge of his nose. He examines each drawing intently, searching for correspondence between his astringent vision of the project and the abstract ink markings scribed on the thin sheets of vellum placed before him.
Peter looks on anxiously, like a nervous petitioner, sweating through a tax audit executed by a grim-faced representative of the federal government.
“Well, Peter.” Carroll says finally, “You have done well. I do believe we are very close. Very close indeed.”
Peter visibly relaxes.
“Thank you, Professor Carroll…”
“There are, of course, several things I would like to see amended…”
“,,,but overall, I’d say we’re very close. Very close.”
“What else is…uh, needed,” Peter states, with some lingering apprehension. He had never before known Carroll to not enumerate a bewildering list of revisions to any drawing he had ever previously presented.
“Nothing really, Peter. Nothing that we cannot tend to in the time that remains to us before the council presentation.”
“That would be good…yes?” Peter says with an uncertain relief.
“That would be very good Peter. You’ve done excellent work. I am most appreciative of your efforts.”
“Thank you, Professor Carroll. I…I just want to make sure this is what we… what you want.”
“It is Peter. It is exactly what I was looking for tonight.”
“Good. Then…uh, if that’s all that’s needed, Professor Carroll, you know, I should get back to the studio, you know, summer school and all…”
“Yes, that should suffice for tonight, but if you have a moment longer, I would like to chat with you briefly regarding the future…”
“Yes. After the council’s proceedings. You know, the next phase of this work. Listen, I have a bottle of wine chilling in the refrigerator. Let’s sit back the two of us, and, you know, savor the moment. I think I might have some ideas that a young man of your talent and pedigree would find… well… very attractive.”
“Oh,” Peter says hesitantly, “I guess there’s nothing that can’t wait a little longer.”
“Good, Peter. Please, come into the living room. I’ll get us both glasses.”
Carroll leads Peter into the adjoining room and invites him to sit. He disappears into the kitchen. Peter sits. Carroll putters in the kitchen.
The living room is spacious, two stories in height, skylit and minimal in décor. There are two skittish Wassily chairs and an elegant leather chaise lounge, situated to either side of a slab of roughly hewn travertine that serves as a coffee table. On the table is a single copy of Contemporary Reflection and an artist’s portfolio. At one corner of the room is a sleek black torchere. In another corner is an earthen crock, filled with dried stalks of sorghum and maize. The floor is hardwood. The ceiling is vaulted. There is a brooding, massively-scaled Motherwell hung over the chaise lounge. There is nothing else in the room.
Carroll returns, offers Peter a glass and fills it with a thick, golden liqueur. It is an aromatic brew, sweet to the smell and almost immediately intoxicating.
“Tokaji,” says Carroll as he takes his place in the Wassily across form Peter. A Hungarian desert wine. The Slavs claim it an aphrodisiac. I really just crave it only for the magnificent bouquet. Elegant, don’t you think?”
Peter nods. Carroll leans back in his chair and smiles.
“So Peter,” Carroll begins, “You’ll be graduating…what, in December?’’
“Yes…you know, assuming I get through my thesis project all right…”
“I can assure you Peter, there should be no problem with that.”
“I really hope not.”
“Don’t even think of it.”
“Yes. No, I won’t.”
“That’s good. So very good. You must appreciate," Carroll begins, "I’m going to need some help, once this project starts moving forward. And, I would expect further work to follow in its wake. In fact, I’ve made some rather elaborate preparations for the future: renting office space in the Compton Point vicinity, leasing furniture, equipment, setting up phone lines, that sort of thing. As they might say in vernacular, I intend to ‘put out my shingle’ once more and I foresee a very important role for you in all of this.”
“You do?” Peter hadn’t expected this.
“Yes, I most certainly do.”
The notion of working full time for Stephen Clifford Carroll had never crossed Peter’s mind. When the project first came up, he had originally gotten involved principally out of admiration for Carroll, a regard that very soon lost its luster. As the work progressed and Peter came to recognize the true character of the man, he decided to stick it out despite his growing reservations. If nothing else, Carroll’s name would look pretty impressive on a resume. And now, he continued working for Carroll only out of a personal sense of integrity.
A real job with this man? That would be altogether different.
There are only a very few ways an architect actually succeeds in this world. The first would be to possess extraordinary talent. Of course, this is an exceedingly uncommon commodity and even those individuals with one abundant gift or another are still not assured of success. Talent is nice, but it is rarely a guaranteed meal ticket.
Another route to success requires only the good fortune to have been born with a fat wad of cash. It’s how most of Peter’s more wealthy classmates intend to start their own practices after graduation. Obviously, if you really don’t need to make a decent living by work alone, architecture is actually a pretty dammed attractive pastime.
The third entrée to success in architecture would involve associating yourself with someone who is already successful. If this person also happens to be as renowned as, say, Stephen Clifford Carroll, no matter how undeservedly, so much the better. This is how it has always been.
This is the reason Frank Lloyd Wright went to work for Louis Sullivan. It’s why Ludwig Mies van der Rohe went to work for Peter Berhens and why Philip Johnson went to work for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Fame begets fame. Fortune follows those shrewd enough to follow fortune.
Scratch the biography of any famous architect and you will discover at least one of these three qualities to always be present. They were either incredibly talented or incredibly wealthy or had the incredibly good fortune of finding themselves in the stable of someone who was already in one way or another famous. Philip Johnson in fact, possessed all three critical determinants of success, an unequaled hat trick as far as architectural pedigree is concerned.
Up until this very moment, Peter has never possessed any of these vital attributes. Lord knows, neither he nor any member of his family had ever had any real money to speak of. And although Peter is talented in ways that would intimidate a sizable chunk of humankind, his gift in no way approaches the heights of architectural genius necessary for unchallenged admission into the pantheon of heralded designers.
And, up until this precise moment, Peter has never known anyone whose mentoring alone could make of him something he would never otherwise be. Stephen Clifford Carroll has just presented Peter with just this very offer of opportunity. It's enough to make a poor country boy gag.
Of course, Carroll is a complete butthole. Of this, Peter is absolutely certain. Carroll is as well abusive, condescending, self-righteous, patronizing and frankly, not a particularly nice person. He would be an incredible pain in the ass to work for. Peter knows all this too. But Carroll is also successful and renowned and completely capable of granting Peter access to a world he could never hope to enter on the uncertain legs of his own merit.
And so, at this one particular moment in his life, with nothing else about his existence seeming worth a spent wad of chewing gum, without a wife, without any other prospect of love or enduring friendship, without the sensibility he would ordinarily possess had he not just finished his second glass of wine, Peter thinks maybe Carroll wouldn’t be such a bad guy to wind up with after all. In fact, this could be his only real shot at success. Who knew?
“Yes, Professor Carroll…”
“Please Peter. Call me Stephen.” Carroll leans forward and refills Peter’s glass once again.
“Yes Profess…er… Stephen.”
“We will of have a number of details to work though: compensation, responsibilities and so forth, but as an idea, what would you think?”
“Well…” Peter cannot bring himself to refer to Carroll by first name. “I’m not sure. I never really thought about anything after graduation…or, not about anything but, you know, going back to the Midwest…”
“You have family there?”
“Only my mother.”
“No one else? A girlfriend, spouse?”
“An ex-wife,” Peter says grimly.
“Oh. I see.” Carroll pauses. Not surprisingly, he already knows everything there is to be known about Peter and his faithless wife. There is nothing Stephen Clifford Carroll doesn’t know about anything that goes on in or outside of Alabaster University.
“Well Peter. You know, I’m divorced myself.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that.”
“Yes, but it was a very long time ago, before I truly understood my life’s calling. Women really can’t appreciate this sort of thing. Architecture, I mean. They have no empathy for the dedication required. They know nothing of its demands, don’t you think?”
“I guess I really hadn’t thought of it like that…”
“No, they don’t understand it in any way. And, it really turned out all for the best in my case. I have my work and its rewards, my freedom and…” Carroll winks, “…more than ample personal pleasure to satisfy my…um, more physical needs.”
Peter does not immediately grasp the suggestion of Carroll’s reference. He shrugs limply. The wine is making him dull and flush. Carroll carefully observes Peter’s every gesture. Peter drifts backward into the sofa, nearly spilling his drink. Carroll rises and moves to the edge of the chaise lounge.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever shown you my portfolio of professional work, have I?”
“No. No, you haven’t.”
“Well, let me do so.” Carroll sits down beside Peter and plucks the folio from the coffee table. “I think you’ll find it impressive. Most impressive.”
Carroll opens the folio and thumbs through its large format, acetate-sheathed pages. He annotates his description of each display with only a barely contained hubris.
“This,” he says pridefully, “is my life’s work.”
Contained within the large format portfolio are numerous, glossy photographs of Carroll’s most renowned project, a now demolished, non-denominational chapel. The photos are yellowed and brittle with age. Carroll doesn’t see this just as he has never noticed the advancing brittleness of his own callous demeanor.
There are other projects too. Most are also many years old. Most were never realized. Of those that had actually been constructed, only a very few in any way compare to the early brilliance of Carroll’s early work.
There is a second section of Carroll’s portfolio. As he turns to it he remarks, “I am, you should know, also something of an accomplished photographer.” The phrase is spoken as though it had already been scripted, rehearsed and delivered a hundred times before.
“No. I didn’t know that,” Peter says slowly. Something has suddenly become disturbingly familiar about this entire situation.
“Yes. It’s a hobby really, but if I do say so myself, some of these images are really quite fetching, don’t you think?”
“Um, yes,” Peter replies.
The photographs are all black and white. Some are images of buildings. Others are landscapes. All are severe. All are rendered in the same harsh glare of a cold, heartless sun. Trees are barren. Streescapes are devoid of human activity.
“Can you see the remarkable detail here?” As Carroll points out a small feature of one of the photographs, he leans forward and, not without deliberate calculation, precipitously closer to Peter. He is now so near Peter can taste the dryness of the old man’s breath and smell the parched scent of his withered skin.
Peter becomes immediately wary. He searches the experiences of his lifetime. He clearly recognizes the position in which he now finds himself. He tenses, though not in a way the old man can remotely sense.
Carroll continues to turn the pages of the portfolio, describing one image after another with nauseating self-satisfaction. His right arm has moved to the backrest of the chaise directly behind his young charge. His aged fingertips innocently brush against Peter’s shoulder.
The remaining photographs are devoted to portraiture. All are as stark and harshly illuminated as Carroll’s inanimate subjects. All are rendered in black and white. All are images of young males; slender and delicately featured. Carroll moves yet closer to Peter, their elbows now just touching. Peter cannot will himself to move away.
Carroll turns a final page. It too is the image of a young man. Peter immediately recognizes his face. It is someone he had known at school, a former student. The subject is looking directly at the camera, smiling provocatively into the deep blackness of its lens. The subject is turning from the camera to his left. The subject is, as a matter of inescapable fact, naked from the waist down. Peter silently gulps.
“Of course,” Carroll impiously drawls, “you must appreciate that Architecture is not my only interest in life.”
Peter looks up at Carroll and smiles timidly. It is a characteristically Midwestern response, feigning polite pleasantness in the face of an awkward or embarrassing situation. Carroll completely misinterprets Peter’s gesture. He assumes it a sign of acquiescence. He moves his left hand swiftly to the inside face of Peter’s thigh.
“You don’t mind, do you, Peter?”
Peter stiffens, but manages to rise to his feet.
“I…I need to go… to the…uh…the bathroom first.”
“Yes,” responds Carroll, his voice drooling with coyness. “That would be so very appropriate right now, Peter. Please do whatever is necessary. And please, do hurry.”
In the bathroom, Peter cranks the faucet on full and plunges his face directly into the rushing stream of cold water. He hadn’t realized how drunk he’d become. He ratchets the faucet closed, towels off and looks into the vanity’s full-length mirror. He sees himself with clarity, likely for the first time in years. He examines the reflected posture of a lean, delicately featured young man. He scrutinizes this man’s thin, elegantly drawn fingers. He notices the glib tousle of his hair. He fully understands what is now expected of this person.
Peter has just been informed of his price of admission to the very exclusive league of celebrated architectural designers. He thinks about it all very hard.
After more than a moment’s reflection, Peter flips off the vanity light and moves silently back into the living room. Carroll has vanished.
“In here Peter. Please. Come.”
Peter looks through the gulf of an open doorway. The room within is illuminated by only the flickering glimmer of a long-stemmed candle. Peter can just barely make out the silhouetted profile of his esteemed mentor and prospective suitor.
“Peter. Come.” Carroll is reclined, cradled in the pleated cushion of his lushly seductive bed. His hand-tailored oxford shirt is unbuttoned. He greedily pats the satin quilt beneath him. He smiles out at Peter with an undisguised covetousness. Carroll is naked from the waist down.
“Please. Peter. Come here. Now,”
Peter looks directly at Stephen Clifford Carroll’s withered body. He stares for only a moment at the man’s diminutive, lamely arched but expectantly erect penis.
Peter closes his eyes. He inhales deeply.
He turns and walks out of Stephen Clifford Carroll’s condominium, never to return.